Define “Political Correctness”

A story this week is notable not just because of my offered “definition” of “Political Correctness,” but for some interesting commentary it brought. First, the story, from True’s 28 August 2006 issue:


During her lunch hour, Jane Edwards, a doctor in Sheffield, England, stopped at the Post Office to renew her daughter’s passport since the family was planning a trip to France. Nothing doing, she was told: 5-year-old Heather was wearing a sleeveless dress, and her resulting exposed skin “might prove unacceptable” if the girl went to a Muslim country. “I followed the instructions on the passport form to the letter and it was still rejected,” Edwards fumed. “It is just officialdom pandering to political correctness.” A spokesman for the U.K. Passport Service said he was not aware of any rules against girls showing skin in passport photos. (London Daily Mail) …Political Correctness: a system of thinking where it’s OK to offend someone right in front of you by enforcing a made-up rule to stop a theoretical offense to an unknown person later when you aren’t even going to be there.

Define "Political Correctness"Where It Came From

The story was originally brought to my attention by Peter in the U.K. — I hadn’t spotted it myself, which is why I really appreciate reader story submissions. When he sent me the URL he wrote:

I’m humanist/agnostic going on atheist myself; but I feel that people should be able to follow their religions, as long as they don’t try to make others do so too. This seems wrong to me.

And it seems absolutely wrong to me, too.

But That’s Not the Point

I’m running Peter’s comment for a different reason: so many religious people, especially those who are not secure in their faith, tend to complain that True is “anti-religion” (or “anti-Christian”). Not so, of course; I simply feel that in addition to pointing out the foibles of cops, postal workers, love-sick (wo)men, restaurateurs, criminals (and, of course, my favorites: politicians), it’s also fair game to point out the foibles of the religious, especially those who are not walking their talk.

Here’s a guy who’s “agnostic going on atheist.” If he said something like that in, say, a high-circulation online publication, people would accuse him of being “anti-religious.” He’s nothing of the sort. Just because he rejects religion for himself doesn’t say a thing about what he thinks the rights of others should be. So much so that he’s deeply disturbed when he sees someone’s religious rights trampled. And so should we all.

Like Peter, I’m not “anti-religious,” I’m pro freedom of religion — all of it, not just the portion some people like. And that includes people like Peter, who don’t want religion forced upon them. That should not be difficult to understand, yet I’ve had to fight that battle again and again because so many are so insecure about their own faith they see any exploration of the idea as threatening. With luck, this sheds a bit more light on the subject.

This is discussed more on my religious freedom page (among other spots, up to including the spinoff Get Out of Hell Free site!)


After this was in the next newsletter, Denis in Ontario, Canada, who emigrated from the U.K., sent this thought-provoking note in reaction to the “new definition”:

I cannot remember quite how I stumbled or perhaps I was pushed into receiving your weekly offerings, some months ago, but do know I am always highly amused although somewhat saddened by the weekly fare you place before us. Ever prepared to accept the consequences of my actions and words, I have long set about deliberately upsetting members of the P.C. brigade: the Holier Than Thou promoters and all the other Bigots with which this world is seemingly filled. During my lifetime and being of an age that knows no boundaries (closing in on 80), I have seen many changes and experienced many events which only go to reinforce my thinking about some who write you — mentally challenged folks. Who else would write you with such petty, ill-thought-out and ill-considered, complaints? Deep thought, rationale and logic certainly appear to be alien to many such as these, for they are fast vanishing, as evidenced by their writings. Far too many would seem to be lacking a degree of common sense, a trait so much a rarity in today’s world.

My sole reason for writing you — I felt an obligation on my part — was to offer you my heartfelt support and thanks for the little light you throw upon the stupidities of my fellow man. Keep up the good work my Friend. I’m most honoured to have found your site and again, I am really most appreciative of my weekly portion/potion of “belly” laughs.

- - -

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15 Comments on “Define “Political Correctness”

  1. actually a baseless argument (to an extent), for muslims a 5 y/o can dress like any other 5 y/o w/ sleeveless dress and short short skirt showing legs — all that comes stuff comes at puberty.

    now otoh, some strict muslims might have an issue with pictures…so how do you handle that, uk passport office.

    No one said anyone gave any thought to this idea! Clearly they didn’t. -rc

  2. Thing is I’ve been in Israel in the summer, and my sister was asked not to enter certain “holy” places because she was wearing shorts.

    Now, if the British government has a mandate wherein passports must meet certain guidelines so that all countries will accept a British passport, then this is not quite as blindly PC as one might think. It’s a policy to ensure that no one rejects a British passport out of hand. It’s for maximum usability.

    But passports have silly rules in general. I once was told some countries require you to smile in your passport photo because they don’t want foreigners to think their people are unhappy.

    But now, in the wake of September 11th, multiple countries have enacted rules that prohibit various forms of smiling in passport photos. I kid you not. Apparently, though, in the UK, babies under 1 year old are allowed to smile (or even sleep) in their photos.

  3. Here’s my favorite definition of PC: “Political Correctness is a doctrine, fostered by a delusional, illogical minority, and rabidly promoted by an unscrupulous mainstream media, which holds forth the proposition that it is entirely possible to pick up a turd by the clean end.”

  4. There are lots of ways to express an anti-religious bias. If your criticism was balanced in both directions, it would be understandable. There are many opportunities to criticize religious bigots that you do not take. Charles Dawkin’s book is so unbalanced, other atheists have criticized it, and there are many people who are of Dawkin’s mindset, so there should be plenty of fodder to expose intolerance on the other side.
    Mark (a Zoroastrian)

    My purpose isn’t to equally criticize every possible permutation of belief, but rather to entertain — and provoke thought and discussion. I don’t know what Dawkins has to do with anything, as he isn’t discussed on this page, which is not here to discuss religion, but rather the ridiculous depths of political correctness. That said, if Dawkins does something really stupid that gets him into the news (TRUE is decidedly not a book review site, and I haven’t read his), I’d like to hear about it for consideration for a story here. -rc

  5. Greg in Seattle wrote, “Thing is I’ve been in Israel in the summer, and my sister was asked not to enter certain “holy” places because she was wearing shorts.”

    There is a great difference between that request and the UK’s passport. In his sister’s case, she was entering areas where it was known for certain that religious people who frequent these locations would be offended by ‘immodest’ dress. In such a case, the request is reasonable and compliance a matter of courtesy.

    The UK passport situation differs. There the concern is that one “might travel” to where somebody “might be offended”. This is where PC kicks in. It has nothing to do with real events. Instead it seeks to stop a theoretical offense to an unknown person later when you aren’t even going to be there.

  6. Hey, Mark, is that Charles Darwin or Richard Dawkins you’re criticising? In case of doubt: the first had a beard and is dead; the second didn’t and isn’t.

  7. I grew up in a household where the children had to go to church every Sunday, but parents only went a couple of times a year (so much for being a good example). Regardless, I never felt comfortable with any religion (Episcopal, Baptist, Methodist, etc). By 1988, I had a bad drinking problem and went to get help at a facility based upon Alcoholics Anonymous.

    In dealing with GOD (the 3rd Step in the AA Program), they promoted the idea that Religion is Man’s attempt to explain God, while Spirituality is a Gift from God. This definition has served me well in the many years since, including two working excursions to Saudi Arabia. I had no problems with the Saudis and they had no problems with me. We got along fine.

    I have about the same use of Political Correctness as I do for Zero Tolerance — Both exhibit no tolerance for anything; Good, Bad, or Indifferent.

    Keep up the good work Randy.

  8. Never mind Israel not allowing women to wear shorts in “Holy” places, on an occasion many years ago we went to the Monastery in Paleokastritsa, Corfu where they handed out a skirt for women to wear. Similarly we visited St John the Baptist Chapel in Xewkija, Gozo where a similar offering was made. But little girls were not included in this demand — still innocent I guess, so Passport Office — get a life!!

  9. I am glad I was not drinking anything when I read the definition of PC posted by Joe, New York. If I had been I would not be able to post this comment. That line of thinking informs, not just political correctness, but much of what the mainstream media spews at us daily.

  10. The most concise definition of PC is: “The condescending idea that I know what will insult you better than you yourself know.”

    Much of the time, people who are “protected” by PC are hurt more by the PC people than they are by those who are un-PC.

    Whoopi Goldberg is a good example. She said “I’m not an African-American, I’m not a chick American, I’m an American!”

  11. To Joe in New York and Jay in Texas;

    I read this just recently and had to look it up to post it here.

    “What is meant by the modern term referred to as ‘POLITICAL CORRECTNESS?’

    The definition is found in 4 telegrams at the Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri.

    The following are copies of four telegrams between President Harry Truman and Gen Douglas MacArthur on the day before the actual signing of the WWII Surrender Agreement in September 1945. The contents of those four telegrams below are exactly as received at the end of the war – not a word has been added or deleted!

    Tokyo, Japan 0800-September 1,1945
    To: President Harry S Truman
    From: General D A MacArthur
    Tomorrow we meet with those yellow-bellied bastards and sign the Surrender Documents, any last minute instructions?

    Washington, D C 1300-September 1, 1945
    To: D A MacArthur
    From: H S Truman
    Congratulations, job well done, but you must tone down your obvious dislike of the Japanese when discussing the terms of the surrender with the press, because some of your remarks are fundamentally not politically correct!

    Tokyo, Japan 1630-September 1, 1945
    To: H S Truman
    From: D A MacArthur and C H Nimitz
    Wilco Sir, but both Chester and I are somewhat confused, exactly what does the term politically correct mean?

    Washington, D C 2120-September 1, 1945
    To: D A MacArthur/C H Nimitz
    From: H S Truman
    Political Correctness is a doctrine, recently fostered by a delusional, illogical minority and promoted by a sick mainstream media, which holds forth the proposition that it is entirely possible to pick up a piece of s**t by the clean end!

    Now, with special thanks to the Truman Museum and Harry himself, you and I finally have a full understanding of what ‘POLITICAL CORRECTNESS’ really means…”

    How true it is, I don’t know. I’ve never been to the Truman Museum so can’t claim certain knowledge of this. Are there any readers that HAVE seen these telegrams?

    No, there aren’t, because it’s completely — and obviously — false. I knew it just by skimming over them, and I’ll leave it as a thought exercise for you to figure out why it was so obvious to me. As always, it’s good to research these things before posting. I found this in about three seconds, on Snopes. -rc

  12. Well, I agree that the passport office went over the top, but I don’t agree with all the slams at so-called political correctness. I assume people here are objecting to over-the-top requests, but in many cases the term PC has been used to object to simple requests not to use seriously offensive terms. That is not political correctness. It is politeness. I don’t want to be called a bitch or worse, and I don’t want my friends to be called the n word or anything similarly insulting. There’s no law about it — people may choose to be rude and use those words. But words like those can be very hurtful, and it’s polite to avoid them. Surely we can be grownups and make our points without insulting each other that way.

    I don’t agree with all the slams either: they’re often just justification for treating others badly, as you illustrate. That’s why I instead used a real case of over-the-top “correctness” to show what the concept really meant. -rc

  13. It occurs to me that the clerk at the passport office had other problems (one of which might have been hangups about young girls). The clerk insisted that Dr. Edwards couldn’t submit a picture of her daughter wearing a sleeveless dress because it “might prove unacceptable” in a Muslim country. One must presume the clerk had no problem, however, issuing passports with photos of women who were not wearing Hijab.

    I suspect that one of the other traits of PC is a(n un)healthy dose of hypocrisy.

  14. “Political Correctness” is based on subjective feelings fervently believed to be much better bases for action and assessment than the more objective bases of “Common Sense” and “Reasonable Person”. These latter concepts are deemed woefully archaic in this age of progressive enlightenment propelled and directed by “what everyone knows”.

  15. This does not seem to be a good example of political correctness for the following reasons: 1) there are not many of these “sleeveless complaints” to indicate a pattern, 2) too many references to he said/she said in this one example (well actually, it is mostly what she said), and 3) there are no actual policy by that office to ban or even discourage the use of these sleeveless dresses. It appears to the result of actions conducted by 1 and only 1 clerk that caused Edwards to spend 2 additional hours to get the passport. Was there any fact checking to see if the claims were not embellished as a payback for wasting 2 hours? Does that particular clerk have a known history of denying passports based on his own rules?


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